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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Sustainable Ag: Fork Off

I’m tired of the word “sustainability.” I’m equally tired of the words meant to supplant it such as “eco” and “earth-friendly.” As a fourth-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major, I am well aware of the novelty attached to the title of my degree. What exactly am I conveying to others? What value do the terms “sustainable” and “food systems” hold in our modern lexicon?

The sustainability movement, in my experience, is fueled by good intention often punctuated by naiveté and ignorance. The latter often goes unnoticed. I arrived at Davis as a bright-eyed, affluent suburban youth wanting to save the environment. Food seemed the ideal pathway. Everyone eats. I delved into the study of the food system: its structure, its injustice and its solutions. As I was confronted by facts, figures and stories of the hands that touched the food products I eventually consumed, I was overwhelmed. “Organic,” “fair trade” and “local” all became terms that I strived for. I was attempting to participate in a more just food system through my individual, consumer choice.

As the quarters rolled by, though, I was fortunate enough to take classes that deepened my understanding and comprehension of such complex issues. These classes, though, did not often focus on the “food system.” Women’s studies, community development and anthropology — the social sciences — exposed the flaws in my thinking. I learned to examine the structures around people as opposed to the individuals themselves in order to expose the root of the problems within the food system.

In the U.S., we all too often are taught to not only act, but think, like consumers. By trying to be a “conscious consumer,” I was enacting a vote-with-your-fork mentality. Voting-with-your-fork can more accurately be described as voting-with-your-wallet. In short, I was attempting to exert power through my economic standing. One has to wonder, when put like that, if that isn’t the cause of the problem instead of the solution.

Voting-with-your-fork or wallet means people with more money get more votes. Those that lack the same economic power are effectively silenced in this façade of democracy. This is one reason why the sustainability movement has largely overlooked issues of inequality.

The good intention inside us may be asking at this point, but my purchase must make some difference, right? Sure it does. Your purchase at the Farmer’s Market likely supports smaller, more ecologically sound farms and farmers. Your purchase of Fair Trade chocolate could support women in cooperatives of workers in other countries. Your purchases aren’t meaningless, but they won’t save the world. It’s also important to note that not everyone can afford a grocery bill from the Food Co-op or Whole Foods.

Sustainability has caught on, because it has been adopted by capitalist ideals. Marketing terms, third party certifications and biodegradable packaging are sexy and make us feel like good consumers. We don’t have to question our consumer habits, just adopt the new consumer fad.

We are told that our individual actions added to other people’s individual actions will amount to change. Consumers are championed for demanding that rbST be removed from their milk supply. “rbST” is a genetically modified dairy cow growth hormone manufactured by Monsanto that increases milk production. The European Union banned it citing questionable safety.

Although consumers can buy “rbST-free” milk (a label strongly fought against by the pharmaceutical companies), the synthetic hormone has not been banned. In fact, we unknowingly consume it through cheese quite often. With a critical eye, it is a shallow victory.

What if we stopped thinking of ourselves as consumers and started acting like citizens? Citizens wouldn’t limit themselves to individual actions. Disrupting the link between change and purchasing power brings in the voices of those most disadvantaged within the food system. Our power as groups can amount to real change, like bans and regulations, that provide safer, more wholesome food for everyone — not just those with the luxury of free time devoted to researching healthy food and can afford to buy it.

Our power as consumers is intrinsically limited by the relationship we have with food corporations. We are seen as wallets, not people. But I’m not a wallet, I’m a person. With a body that can get sick. With a mind that deserves to know what I’m eating. And a desire to help everyone, regardless of income, eat healthy food.

To brainstorm other ways to be a citizen, contact ELLEN PEARSON at erpearson@ucdavis.edu.


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